There's value to having something to strive for. All of us need to be striving toward something, and that vision comes from our values about what we want in our lives and what has meaning. When we have that vision, we can set a target and move toward it. Joining Melanie Parish on the show today is Melinda Harrison, a former Olympic swimmer and a professional certified ICF PCC Level Executive Coach with an extensive experience in goal discovery and pathways to attainment. Melinda tackles the challenges that competitive athletes struggle with in finding their true North. She also touches on the concept of athlete autopilot, self-measurement, and the messy middle of change. Join Melanie and Melinda in this insightful conversation about the importance of asking the question of why we're driven to succeed.
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Finding Your True North With Melinda Harrison
I'm here with Melinda Harrison. She's a former Olympic swimmer, a professional certified ICF - PCC level executive coach, with extensive experience in goal discovery and pathways to attainment. Having personally navigated from Olympian, Los Angeles 1984, to businesswoman and from volunteer to community leader, she's devoted to helping individuals move from one level of success to the next. She's the author of the new book, Personal Next: What We Can Learn From Elite Athletes Navigating Career Transition. I'm excited to talk to her about athletes, how they succeed, and what to do in uncertain times. It's great to be here with Melinda Harrison.
Melinda, I am excited to have you on the show.
Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.
It's quite fun to have you. Tell us a little bit about your work. What are you up to?
I am an ICF certified coach at the PCC level and my specialty is helping people in performance. That could be in the performance of getting to a personal best. It can be when they struggle after performance and need to figure out what's next. Also, it’s helping people to discover their personal next.
What are you grappling with right now? What are you experimenting with your clients and in your life at this time?
The most important thing is being a learner. One of my core values is learning. That is making sure that I never assume I know everything. As we grow in expertise, one of the downfalls in expertise is that we become known for what we know, and therefore sometimes afraid to step back and say, “What don't I know?” When I went on this journey of trying to figure out how to help people best transition after experiencing a personal best, I went on it from the lens of looking at 100 people that had successfully done it. I had never interviewed anyone. I don't have a PhD. I'm not a psychologist, but I am a high performer.
It was an experiment. I thought, “If I could look at people that had successfully transitioned from high performance to a new aspect of their life, what would I learn?” It was a complete experiment. I was very blessed. I had Adria Trowhill who was a mentor coach. She helped me develop the questions that are at the back of my book. Those first few phone calls, I had no idea how to run an interview, tape an interview, and transcribe an interview. All of this was a complete experiment to me. After completing the 100-plus interviews, what do I do with this information? I went in from a learning mindset. I’m like, “I want to become a better coach. What is it that I could grab from this information that would help me to be a better coach?” I never considered writing a book. I was just trying to help myself to be better. I realized that there were patterns emerging. That was my experiment.
I'm a little curious. The whole world is experimenting. I have fifteen-year-old competitive swimmer athletes living in my house. They're grappling with finding meaning as their club is closed. They have no idea when they're going back there. They're having a hard time finding true north. What should they be thinking?
First, I would say to them, “It is a hard time,” to mitigate those feelings. When you've been involved in something intense as being a competitive swimmer and that no longer is that means of exercise, being with other people and striving towards those specific goals is no longer there, it is a loss. What I would say to them is to acknowledge where they're at, and then figuring out what parts they can control. Once they are able to identify the feelings in the experience they’re going through, it's good to talk about it, but It's important to have a little bit of action as a high performer to start to take control of what you can take control of.
The swimmers that I've talked to, and I'm doing quite a lot of that, I'm saying to them, “What part of your day are you getting up to do the core exercises that you know will help you in any particular stroke that you swim? How are you eating properly? Are you limiting video games? What are the things that are promoting your well-being so that when you can get back in the pool, you're going to be a step ahead than those that didn't take control of what they can control?”
I am finding it challenging to be their parent. I have one who's good at doing weights and working out, and the one that was a better swimmer is finding it difficult to find that center. That's some good advice that you brought.
Have them put some sentence starters, “I’m feeling this.” They need to get the anger out. Athletes are angry right now because they understand intellectually the situation. At fifteen, their emotions are going wild. Even though you understand it from an intellectual perspective, your emotional side is struggling. By allowing them to journal that anger out, and then tear it up, throw it up, throw it in a fireplace, let them get rid of that anger. Because they've never gone through this before and we approach athletes as strong and mature.
They've experienced so much and they have so much resilience, but it's resilience in the arena they play it. This is a new arena. One of the things I experienced as an athlete and what the interviewees reiterated time and time again is that in your own arena, you're really good at it. However, once you get thrown outside of that gym, swimming pool, the weight room or whatever, you lose your confidence. You don't know who you are or how to act. It's important to understand what they're feeling so that they can grab hold of that. Not just to address it but to say, “It's okay that I feel this way.”
I love the acknowledgment of emotion. We talked about fifteen-year-olds being a little angry, but everybody might be a little angry right now. I certainly am feeling it with my clients and their emotions. There's not as much buoyancy as there is typically in people.
It's because we don't know where we're going. The clientele that you're dealing with, they're used to being in control and having certainty. They're capable of dealing with incredible amounts of uncertainty, but they also know the core basics. We don't even know the core basics right now. Everybody wants answers and we don't have any answers.
I want to hear more about the athlete autopilot. Can you tell us more about that?
You'll relate to this because of your kids being swimmers. From a very young age, you have been programmed into a way of life. You know what time you get up in the morning to go to morning practice. You know what time your meals are. You know how to behave in that environment. You know about the athlete-coach relationship and how important it is to respect the coach. All aspects of that athletic pursuit have been programmed into how you operate. What happens with the athlete is once that rug is pulled out from underneath them, they don't know how to operate because they've been in this system from this young age.
They have to start to figure out, “How do I operate outside of the system?” It's as simple as when they walk into the Aquatic Center. It's laughing with their friends. That's not there anymore. It's as simple as waving to the person who lets them through the gate or saying hello to them. That's not there anymore. It's that you are in this special weight room with all sorts of special people that are all labeled as high performers. In many cases, labeled as exceptional and special. That's not there anymore. Every aspect of your life was pulled out from underneath them with this COVID-19. Because of that, they have to figure out how to get off autopilot and move to not a reactive choice but a responsive choice.
That's true of anyone when they stop swimming. Swimming is something that changes. I was also a competitive swimmer, not anywhere near the level you were at, but I am noticing as you're talking, I've been self-employed and worked at home for many years. I have very regimented behaviors in my work life that are much like what you're talking about. I don't do dishes during the day. I put my clothes on and I go to my desk. There's a whole series in my flow that is autopilot.
It serves us well for certain aspects of our life. If you're getting up in the morning, you don't think about, “I've got to get up in the morning and brush my teeth.” You just brush your teeth. There are lots of autopilot that serves us well. Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck. He didn't think about that aspect of getting up in the morning brushing his teeth and getting dressed. He knew what he was wearing. There are lots of benefits to autopilot. The issue comes up when the structure or the thing that the autopilot served is no longer available to you and you have to start making choices.
I had one of the football players that I interview who subsequently had a very serious type of cancer. One day he said he woke up after the interview, and he emailed me. He said, “I had this fascinating realization that my whole life, I've been pulled along by a system that didn't always serve my best interest, but it was a system that I bought into.” When sports, career, parenthood, or anything else that we're deeply invested in doing a good job at ends, so too does that system and it's frightening.
You've done a lot of thought leadership on this. Are there certain areas that we shouldn't turn to be autopilot or that we should intentionally see as unique moments?
There’s a lot. The level that you coach at being a master coach, you would recognize that learning to pause between the stimulus and the response is important not only from your emotional intelligence level, but to access that higher thinking level of your brain. When I work with clients, I often do an educational period where I help them to understand the different types of choices they can make. I put them down into four categories. The autopilot, the ignore, the reactive, and the responsive. None of us can always make responsive choices. We get triggered, but the more you're aware of responsive choices, the better you're going to be able to actualize what you are trying to actualize.
I use an online calendar and I accidentally had too many clients in one day. I was fine coaching. I was in my coach mode, but when I got off the phone or off Zoom or wherever we were doing all calls, I was exhausted. Because I was so busy, my assistant hadn't been able to get to me. She put herself in my calendar at the end of the day, and I couldn't talk to her. Finally, she said, “I shouldn't talk to you today.” It's exactly that. Sometimes we hit our capacity. Sometimes it's capacity, reactivity, or it's all those things, but that's interesting to have some buckets. I love the ignore bucket. I think that's fantastic.
There are times where ignoring is a good thing, but it's not a good thing at the end of the day for me when I walk downstairs to my kitchen and see a bag of chips and go, “I'm so hungry. I know I shouldn't eat these but I'm going to open that bag and dive into those things.” That's an example of when you know you shouldn't be doing something but you do it anyway.
I'm curious about self-measurement. Determine new markers to replace old definitions of wins, and to provide new versions of competition. Can you tell me more about that?
One of the aspects of being a high performer from a young age is that we become very comparative. You compare yourself to other athletes and people that have moved up in groups versus people that get moved down in groups. Life measurement becomes a comparative analysis. Because this socialization has happened from a young age, it's a natural extension of how you view the world. When the winds stop and there's nothing to compare yourself to, that's when your self-worth can start to deteriorate.
One of the things that's important to do as a high performer is to redefine what a win is. Traditionally, a win has been a medal, a raise, a position or for the younger athlete, it’s getting moved up to the A pool. We need to step back and say, “What would you define a win as and how would you measure that?” One of the exercises that I have clients do that are going through this messy middle is to write down their wins every day. It's fascinating to have them debrief that at the beginning of each meeting every couple of weeks. At first, they don't even think about what a possible win is because it's not compared to anything else. By the time we're done with our coaching, it becomes such a natural part of recognizing that their wins are about themselves, not necessarily about anybody else.
I have some clients who are getting paid to do jobs. They're not doing much for their jobs because they can't right now, and they're trying to find the wins. How would you direct them?
Not knowing them. I'd start by asking them some questions. I would say, “Tell me about what you feel would be a successful day for you.” Once I understood their version of success, which could be very different from my version of success, I then want them to assess, “How did you do on that version that you felt?” In some cases, their first answer might be, “I ran seven meetings and I had successful outcomes on this.” I would love to know more holistically how they would view a successful day. Did they get out for a walk? In their old version of their life, they probably didn't have the time to get out for a walk because they were in an office building. Now they may have that time and that can be a win or something that might be successful for them. Look at success from a holistic point of view, but each person has to come to their version of success. It might need some prodding because you need to turn it more holistic than just the traditional markers. That's the first thing I would do.
I love the idea of redefining success for them. That's fantastic. You have nine key practices to use as a starting point for achieving your personal next. Can you talk about this?
That came out of all of the interviews. What happened was when I did the interviews, I transcribed them, and I sent them back to each interviewee to make sure they were accurate. I started to quote them, hundreds of pages of quoting. I have a million words from all these interviews. These attributes or these things kept showing up. One was proficiency, which is the P in practices. In that development of a personal next or the actualization of a personal best. They kept working to develop that high level of skills and knowledge or developing the use of their aptitudes. That would be an example of the proficiency. Each letter of practices is another aspect that the individual can work on to develop a personal next.
What was most fascinating was that in that messy middle, that period between a personal best and a personal next, it was the absence of these practices. That creative part of that experience of that messy middle. In the case of the word proficiencies, they weren't developing new skills. They were still hanging on to those old aspects of their lives. They weren't yet developing and seeking out new knowledge. They didn't have a place to practice those aptitudes that are so important in high performance.
I love the messy middle.
It sums it up. I make the assumption and it is an assumption that everyone goes through messy middle at times in their lives. I haven't met somebody that hasn't gone through a messy middle, but I'm sure there's somebody out there that will say, “You're so wrong, Melinda.” That's okay. I'd love to talk to them and learn from them. That period where you've achieved something. We talk about the Olympians, when they achieve their goal of either making an Olympic team, placing at the Olympics, medaling or winning.
There's this period after they're done that is almost sadness. They work so incredibly hard to get to that point of achievement, and then they go, “What was that all about?” It's well documented. They question their commitment to it. They don't have that joy. The joy was getting there and they assume that there's going to be this incredible lasting joy of reaching that pinnacle of experience. The brain has been trained to keep trying to get there. It's so hard to rest on that laurel of success. That's an example of a messy middle for an athlete. Once they're done, even if they're going to continue, it can be challenging and going through that period of a messy middle.
I would love for you to tell us what your events were as an Olympian.
I swam 200-meter backstroke at the Olympics and in the NCAA, I swam at the University of Michigan. I swam the 400 IM, 200 IM, and the 200 and 100 backstroke. I’m an all-around swimmer.
Where can people find you, Melinda?
It's MelindaHarrison.com, on Instagram @MelindaHarrison, on Twitter @FindingYourNext, Facebook it's Melinda Harrison, or LinkedIn, Harrison Melinda. If you google Melinda Harrison, you can find me.
I look forward to seeing your book. I can't wait to get it and I am so thrilled to have had you here with us. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Thank you and thanks for those great questions. They were probing and I enjoyed it.
No problem. I love getting to follow my own curiosity. It's so much fun.
I've enjoyed chatting with Melinda Harrison. One of the things that is important about what we've been talking is how we need to ask the why questions about why we're driving to succeed. Competitive athletes who get to the end of their careers or who stopped for whatever reason might feel a void in the automated life that they've been living where practice is a part of every day. How can they apply that? What's the true north that they're going for when they strive? All of us need to be striving toward something. That vision comes from our values about what we want in our lives, what has meaning. We set a target then we move toward it. I absolutely believe that there's value to having something to strive for. It's been a real pleasure to be with Melinda. Go and experiment.
About Melinda Harrison
MELINDA HARRISON, PCC, OLY, a former Olympic swimmer, is a professional certified ICF PCC Level Executive Coach with extensive experience on goal discovery and pathways to attainment. Having personally navigated from Olympian (Los Angeles 1984) to businesswoman and from volunteer to community leader, she is devoted to helping individuals move from one level of success to the next. Harrison combines her business and entrepreneurial experience with her background as an Olympic athlete to help individuals and teams create a deeper self-awareness, develop opportunities, and move towards their goals. Harrison is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was captain of the swim team and became the first woman swimmer to be included into their Hall of Honor. She is a multi-year All-American swimmer and won the Big Ten Conference championship in four events. She is the author of the book Personal Next: What We Can Learn from Elite Athletes about Creating New Success
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.